International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction (IDDRR) 2022
By Mr. Tom Caley, Dr. Nibedita Ray-Bennett and Mr. Alex Skinner
The 13th October marks the International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction (IDDRR) as designated by the United Nations General Assembly. The Avoidable Deaths Network (ADN) joined this important campaign by hosting its own event to mark the day, with a one-hour special session on ‘Early Warning, Early Action’. Click here to watch.
Our speaker and participant comments for this special session were positive and informative:
“A very special day for IDDRR. This was an excellent insight into how every country should prepare for early warnings and disaster risk reduction” Dr Madhulika Sahoo
“The debate and questions were so lively and animated” Dr Nibedita Ray-Bennett
“This was an excellent session” Mr Julian Coetzee
“We have a long way to go to equalise the knowledge domains on disaster risk across the world” Professor Michael Petterson.
“It is important that disaster education occurs in schools in terms of early warning alert and message propagation. The media have an important role to play” Professor Norio Okada
“It is important to continue working in anticipation of disasters, rather than reacting” Mr Sheikh Khairul Rahaman
The ADN is a global network of researchers, policymakers, students, and practitioners dedicated to reducing disaster deaths and the number of people affected by disasters in low- and middle-income countries. We argue that disaster deaths may be avoidable where there is collaboration, cooperation, coordination, and communication in implementing public health measures, making timely interventions, and encouraging effective governance.
The focus of IDDRR 2022 is “early warning and early action for all” (UNDRR, 2022a). Target G of the Sendai Framework aims to “substantially increase the availability of and access to multi‑hazard early warning systems and disaster risk information and assessments to the people by 2030” (PreventionWeb, no date).
This short blogpost explains multi-hazard early warning systems (MHEWS) and their ideal operational context, before providing a status report on Sendai’s Target G. Finally, three case studies show how MHEWS might be employed well or otherwise to reduce avoidable deaths in disasters.
MHEWS as socio-technical systems
What are multi-hazard early warning systems (MHEWS) and how are they best implemented? Early warning systems in disasters “provide information ahead of hazardous events to enable pre-emptive action that will reduce the risks faced by exposed people” (Yore and Walker, 2021, p691).
They are technical at the frontend, consisting of detecting, monitoring, analysis and forecasting technologies, disseminated in turn with targeted communication methods which include TV, radio, printed media, web applications and word of mouth (World Meteorological Organization, 2020). MHEWS are designed to warn of one or more ‘multi’ hazards which may combine and cascade causing interrelated effects and outcomes (World Meteorological Organization, 2020).
Technical capacity, however, is only one part of operational context. The UNDRR (2022a) calls for “end-to-end” systems, covering the whole range from detection to understandable and actionable warnings. They should be people-centred (UNDRR, 2022a), and suited to cultural and social contexts.
Warnings, when they come, must be relayed to populations at risk who are “receptive, willing, and able to take action” (Yore and Walker, 2021, p692), a component which indicates the extensive work required to raise awareness, gain trust, educate, and drill those living in zones of risk.
Systems adaptation to local factors is critical. Efficacy of MHEWS may be eroded by lack of buy-in by community leaders, incongruence with local religious practices, lack of funding for community engagement (CE) programmes or insufficient integration with government policy (Sufri et al., 2020). Reliance on technology is not enough: social and cultural groundwork is integral to success.
Sendai Target G status report
The Sendai mid-term Review is underway, with the United Nations General Assembly planning a high-level meeting and political statement in May 2023 (UNDRR, 2022a).
We find, however, “as of April 2022, only 95 countries have reported on the existence of Multi-Hazard Early Warning Systems… Less than half of the Least Developed Countries, and only one-third of Small Island Developing States have reported the existence of MHEWS” (UNDRR, 2022a).
The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) is tasked by the United Nations to regularly report on the state of climate services. In 2020 the WMO reported of 138 WMO members, only 40% have MHEWS, and one third of every 100,000 people in the countries that reported is not covered by early warnings (WMO, 2020).
Warning dissemination and communication is described as “consistently weak in many developing countries”, with “insufficient capacity worldwide to translate early warning into early action, especially in LDCs” (WMO, 2020, p5). In summary, available sources suggest there are large gaps in both technical capacity and effective systems implementation.
Case study 1 – linking forecasting to successful action
Braman et al. (cited in Ray-Bennett, 2017) describe an instance in West Africa where long and medium range forecasts were used to develop simple strategies for increasing disaster preparedness. In a strategy called Early Warning, Early Action (EWEA), longer range forecasts guide a series of low cost “no-regrets” actions including drafting flood contingency plans, training volunteers and storing non-perishable foodstuffs (Braman et al., 2013, p147).
In 2008 the International Federation of the Red Cross used seasonal and short-term weather forecasts to predict heavy rains at the reservoirs of Bagre and Kopienga. The information was used to provide a two-week warning spell, where volunteers raised risk awareness before a controlled release of dam waters. A similar dam spillage which killed 30 people in 2007 was reduced to only two in 2008 (Braman et al., 2013).
Case study 2 – early warnings catering to vulnerable groups
In the wake of the devastating south-east Asian tsunami of 2004, a rapid response radio-based initiative was set up in Banda Aceh, Indonesia (Romo-Murphy et al., cited in Ray-Bennett, 2017). Members of the local community, including the vulnerable and disabled, were asked to help design radio messages linked to simple mitigation measures.
These measures include recognising tsunami signs, preparing emergency bags, knowing where to get emergency information and keeping residences clear of detritus to reduce injuries (Romo-Murphy et al., 2011).
Alongside this ‘local embedding’ of preparedness, technical equipment for emergency radios is simple and resilient. Transmitters in suitcases with portable antenna, cables and generator were supplied along with 1,000 radios for local distribution (Romo-Murphy et al., 2011).
Case study 3 – the missing link of culture, community and messaging
In 2013 Super Typhoon Yolanda struck the Philippines in 2013 close to the city of Tacloban. 4.1 million people were displaced, and 6,000 lives were lost (Yore and Walker, 2021). Post-disaster research on survivors revealed all but one had received a disaster warning with more than one day’s notice. 78%, however, either stayed at home during the storm or evacuated only during or afterwards (Yore and Walker, 2021, p699).
Analysis from interviews suggested a range of factors broke the link between early warning and life-saving actions. Families often decided to stay together at home, with social confirmation from others producing time lags in decision-making. Communal shelters seen as overcrowded, chaotic and lacking basic facilities, and the fear of being looted also featured in interviewees’ feedback.
Perhaps the biggest failure was the couching of the threat in confusing terms. Communicated as a ‘storm surge’ rather than as a ‘tsunami’, ‘tidal wave’ or equivalent local term prevented many interviewees from comprehending the magnitude and need to evacuate (Yore and Walker, 2021, p706).
Analysis and call to action
At the mid-term review of the Sendai Framework, there are large gaps in capacity affecting many countries. Worldwide investment is required for progress to be made on Target G.
As socio-technical systems, MHEWS must be multi-hazard in scope, resilient in design, and embedded into local communities where people know what actions to take. Messages must be easy to understand, and sensitive to local contexts.
Case studies such as those in West Africa and Indonesia show early warning systems need not be prohibitively expensive or technical. Cases such as Super Typhoon Yolanda, however, show the dangers of poor integration at the local level. Governments must achieve both social and technical integration for the best chance of reducing deaths in disasters.